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Euro 2016

Deschamps’ mismanagement led to France’s downfall at Euro 2016


Didier Deschamps could not have mismanaged his France team any worse than he did at the Euros.

First, after late winners obscured two otherwise unconvincing performances that brought his team safe passage to the knockout phase of the tournament, Deschamps was presented with a golden opportunity: a quasi-dead-rubber match, against Switzerland, to settle on a formation and identify his best lineup, before (cutthroat) competition begins in earnest. Yet he did not grasp at the chance. One can understand the protection of N’Golo Kanté (a top 10 player this past season, perhaps even top five) and Olivier Giroud (a top 10 player every season in terms of spilled chances), as they were suspension risks. But the benching of Dimitri Payet, the indispensable play-maker on Deschamps’ squad, as he endeavors to mold his star-laden individuals into a well-gelled unit — to discover its identity — was foolhardy.

Second, is the preference for Giroud — and to a lesser extent André-Pierre Gignac — over Anthony Martial up front. Deschamps believes in big strikers: for the aerial threat they would pose within the box and for their ability to hold the ball further up the ground. But Giroud will always tease just enough in low-leverage situations, or against mediocre opposition, or both (in this Euros: opening the scoring against Romania; and bagging a brace in a 5-2 blowout against Iceland), for his manager to persist with him, only to be invariably let down in the most consequential stages against the stronger opponents (see: Germany in the semi-final; and Portugal in the final).

On the other hand, Martial’s sparkling debut campaign in an otherwise bleak Manchester United season ought to have presented a dichotomy for Deschamps: an anti-Giroud. Or, perhaps unkindly but fairly, an anti-Thierry Henry, what with their similar playing styles (making daring runs and take-ons from the left wing) and background (French national of Guadeloupean descent) but, presagefully, diverging output in cutthroat matches: for all of Henry’s brilliance in the Premier League, it never translated when a major trophy was on the line, going goalless in all seven finals (one World Cup, one European Championship, two Champions League, and three F.A. Cups); as opposed to, all things considered, the clutch moments already provided in Martial’s only top-flight season (the F.A. Cup quarter-final and semi-final, to name two). But alas, the dashing 20-year-old assassin was afforded a short leash by Deschamps, who promptly yanked it when he (along with the rest of a re-jigged squad) struggled in the first half of their second group match against Albania. Martial’s number was not called again until the very last 10 minutes of the very last match, when he was tossed into the competitive cauldron after nearly a month of pine-riding, as a last-ditch maneuver to peg back Éder’s go-ahead strike for Portugal. By then, it was too little too late: rust had grown too thick, trust worn too thin; the odds to overcome were too long, the opportunity to shine too short.

All this fed to Deschamps’ third, and most significant, blunder: the rigidity of his team formation. It culminated in an insipid display in the final, in front of an expectant crowd (the two other recent times France hosted a major football tournament both saw Les Bleus triumphs: the Euros in 1984 and the World Cup in 1998).

The seed of France’s downfall in the final was planted in the earlier knockout matches, when unexpectedly down 1-0 at halftime against Ireland in the round of 16, Deschamps changed his team from 4-3-3 to 4-2-3-1: taking Kanté, the holding midfielder, off; moving Antoine Griezmann from the right flank to a position where he is far more effective, the central number 10 role; and bringing on the speedy Kinsley Coman to take Griezmann’s erstwhile position. Though the moves paid off handsomely — when Griezmann booted two goals in the second half to turn around the Ireland tie, and, in the subsequent quarter-final match, when the team slipped five goals past Iceland (which Kanté had to miss for an accumulation of cards) – most clear-eyed observers recognized that it was merely a temporary fix.

Yet Deschamps persisted with his formation for France’s next match: a semi-final showdown against Germany. Perhaps it was an act of selfishness, with a ready-made C.Y.A. response, where he could duly deflect blame to his in-form players if they failed to perform against the world champions. Perhaps it was merely fecklessness. Germany, the most balanced team in the Euros with a healthy dose of technical ability (which Italy lacked), height and pace (Spain), defense (France), tactical nous (Belgium, England, France), and credentials (everybody except Spain), required a vastly different game-plan to the one that dispatched inferior, possession-lite teams of Ireland and Iceland; and to not to prepare one is a dereliction of a manager’s duty. Perhaps it was hubris: Deschamps may have been empowered by a successful managerial gambit earlier in the tournament—benching his two big stars Griezmann and Paul Pogba for the Albania match — which deluded him into thinking that he had the Midas touch.

In any case, Deschamps didn’t heed the warning from a match where his team was utterly dominated in the midfield by a short-handed Germany (missing key players to its spine), only to ultimately prevail via two German mistakes. In for a centime, in for a franc: Deschamps stuck to the same game-plan against Portugal in the final, syllogizing that if his team could (fortuitously) see off the world champions, then piddling Portugal would merely serve as the football equivalent of the Bastille, stormed by Les Bleus revolutionaries on their inexorable way to European coronation. Yet the Bastille’s fort held up well. Doughtier than reputed, Portugal’s defense conceded only three non-deflected goals in their seven Euro fixtures, and only one in their four knockout clashes (which was the equivalent of five regulation matches since three of the four required extra time).

Predictably, all of Deschamps’ missteps came back to haunt his team in the final. Kanté’s absence was most conspicuous: a fast and strong defensive midfielder with a preternatural ability to anticipate the flow of the match, his presence on the pitch would most likely have disrupted Éder’s shot on goal. Moreover, Deschamps compounded the Kanté benching by instructing Pogba to pick up the defensive slack. The Juve standout talent has obvious strengths—though he can flatter to deceive: his long loping strides and powerful shots often belie the impact he has on a match—but defensive duties is not one of them.

Deschamps’ faith in Giroud, unsurprisingly in a time of need, did not yield any return. Neither did the understudy—though Gignac, by way of the Mexican Liga MX, did almost find the net in the dying moments of regulation. Almost—but this isn’t shuffleboard. An engaged Martial, by way of the English Premier League, may well have obviated the use of “almost”. He almost always does.

Alas, France almost triumphed on home soil again. But instead, thanks to Deschamps’ mismanagement, they will be consigned to the dustbin of close also-rans, slated to swiftly fade away.

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  1. VicBklyn

    July 19, 2016 at 11:49 pm

    Biggest mistake was not bringing Kante back into the lineup after suspension. I highlight that because it changes everything from taking pressure off the back, sets Pogba free to play his game, allows Payet and other attacking players to work less.
    These special players where numbers sometimes look great are always underrated because the things you can’t count are overshadowed by other players positive numbers.
    Yes, he should of gave Martial more minutes, sided with experience in the back line for the finals, gave Pogba the freedom he needed, rested Payet more, etc.. but no Coach will be perfect.
    Content will exploit Kante for every drop of blood he has.

  2. utdfan

    July 18, 2016 at 11:12 pm

    Artfully written, but are we really to believe that a coach’s choices over a handful of games is sufficient material from which to discern deep-seated personal character flaws?

    If Deschamps truly was guilty of mismanagement, I can think of at least another 30 European countries who wouldn’t mind hiring a similar mis-manager who could take them within a whisker of winning a major championship.

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